Deerskin, Robin McKinley (1993) K

Date Read: 09.01.2010
Book From: Dearest Emera
Reviewer: Kakaner


(Shamelessly stolen from Emera’s review— if it ain’t broke, why rewrite it?)
Princess Lissla Lissar lives quietly and invisibly in the shadows of her father and mother, who are worshiped by the people, and whose love for each other is all-consuming. When Lissar’s mother mysteriously wastes away, she forces her husband to swear that he will not remarry unless he finds a woman as beautiful as she was. This promise comes back to haunt the kingdom when Lissar, becoming a woman herself, attracts her father’s attention for the first time. Driven from the kingdom by an unendurable ordeal, Lissar escapes with her only friend, her dog Ash, and struggles to survive and reclaim her sense of self.


The beginning of Deerskin was eye opening. As I started reading McKinley, who I haven’t picked up since Sunshine several years ago, I realized there was so much to her writing and storybuilding that I had not been able to fully appreciate before. Deerskin began with a delicate yet urgent account of Lissar’s childhood leading up to her escape from the kingdom. In my opinion, the gem of the novel was here– the elegant and insightful conveyance of the uncrossable distance that can form between a child and her parents, and the stunningly eerie account of the relationship between Lissar and her father. It has certainly been done before– stories in which royal children are neglected emotionally by the majesties– but none have devoted the same care as McKinley did here. The brilliance was the realization that something so little as lack of acknowledgment combined with an initial reverence for one’s parents can slowly ferment for years until it is replaced by fear. Here, I thought the execution was splendid and something that served to set this retelling apart from others.

Next, I apprehensively followed Lissar as she fled her kingdom and sought a bitter refuge in the wilderness, waiting to be impressed by Lissar’s independence, resourcefulness, and elegance in the face of hardships (as is to be expected of fairy-tale-retelling-heroines). This was the case, more or less, but as the story progressed, I was assaulted with pages of visions, repetitive daily monotony, more suffering than one reader can handle, ellipsis abuse e10, and a blind race to the resolution.

And may I interject here, did the climax really happen?  [not-really-spoiler-alert] Did she really honestly just pour forth a fountain of blood from her vagina, leaving a stain in the wood that was to be studied and used as an oracle for generations thereafter? I entirely understand what McKinley was striving for, and yes even though Deerskin is regarded as the Moonwoman, there are other ways to tie together “moon” and “woman” and “dark” and “fantasy”. I would expect a male author to commit such a transgression.

To be fair, I could chalk up my dissatisfaction with the second half to the fact that I simply have much more in common with a shy, black-haired, independent, voracious reader of a child than a lady who traipses through winterlands with a large dog in tow. Despite everything, Deerskin was still one of the most exciting fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time, and it is a dark fantasy novel that places great care in maintaining and exploring the different forms of love in all relationships.

Go to:

Robin McKinley: bio and works reviewed
Deerskin (1993)  [E]

“The Confessions of Prince Charming,” by Kelly Barnhill (2009) E

Date Read:4.4.10
Read from: Fantasy Magazine
Reviewer: Emera

If I wasn’t such a sap, I wouldn’t be sent on these damn errands, but some mother is sobbing for some lost daughter and a father gritting his teeth and saying “half my kingdom” and the mama saying “please” through tears and snot, and I want to say “yeah sure, lady, everybody’s missing someone”, but instead I gallop away because they expect it, and let the rain worm its way into my boots.

Kelly Barnhill‘s The Confessions of Prince Charming is the story that got me started on a cruise through most of her Web-published work. I’d never heard of her before, but “Confessions” ended up being the first short story I’d read in a long while to actually surprise me with how much I enjoyed it.

The title made me wary since it’s been done so many times before, but Barnhill paints a Prince Charming who’s painfully believable: a secretive little boy with mommy issues grows up into a flippant, self-absorbed, regret-eaten man who’s always reaching and never attaining. His moments of tenderness and introspection serve to highlight all the hurt oozing up through the cracks. He’s backed by a cast of equally wounded and intriguing cameo characters, including a witchy divorcée Rapunzel and a lovelorn wolf. There’s a moment of homoeroticism that came off to me as over-the-top – too many social-commentary buttons being poked at in one small space – but apart from that, I loved it. And lest it sound like it’s just a big Freudian sob-story, there are numerous moments of luminous description, as per usual for the author, and the traditional elements that she weaves together are playfully reimagined. Also, it’s pretty funny – Barnhill does levity and gravity equally well.

Go to:
Kelly Barnhill
“Princess,” “Homecoming”
Tales of madness and depravity

“Princess,” “Homecoming”

Reviewer: Emera

Err, couldn’t think of a semi-clever conglomerate title for this string of short story reviewlets, but onwards!


Jeanne Desy‘s “The Princess Who Stood On Her Own Two Feet” (1981; read 4.19.10) is an obvious but not uncharming feminist fairy tale about a tall princess, her faithful (talking) Afghan hound, and a prince with questionable values.

For a bit of background, this apparently first appeared in Ms. magazine in 1981, became quite popular, and has since been frequently republished. Also, someone pointed me to it when, on behalf of a friend, I was trying to find out the title/author of a story (not this one) about a prince who thinks he’s a dog, and ends up having to be wooed by a princess who also thinks she’s a dog. If anyone’s read that one, let me know! The source remains elusive – the friend’s not even sure if it’s a short story or a side episode within a longer novel.


Kelly Barnhill‘s “Homecoming” (2008; read 4.4.10, from Underground Voices) is a vignette about return from war, and small mercies. The prose often feels over-labored (“They tilted their faces to the ground and held their weapons weak, as though they were a great weight that they alone must bear”), but I like the earthy little details of the moment of hedgewitchery on which the story turns.

Go to:
Jeanne Desy
Kelly Barnhill
Tales of madness and depravity

“Half Flight,” by Shweta Narayan (2008) E

Date read: 1.7.09
Read from: The Journal of Mythic Arts
Reviewer: Emera

More fairy tales, finally! I’m backed up on reviews to the point of – well, I’m always backed up on reviews, but I’m feeling particularly guilty about not getting to reviews of all the nifty short stories, fairy-tale-inspired and otherwise, that I’ve been reading this winter.

Shweta Narayan’s “Half Flight” is an odd little retelling of one of my absolute favorite fairy tales, also featuring a brief cameo by a visitor from one of my absolute favorite folk tales. (Glancing at her website bio, we share an interest in liminal characters – “shapeshifters and halfbreeds,” as she puts it – so there you go.)  I hate to describe something as “odd” because it seems like a cop-out, but “Half Flight” is, somehow and pleasingly, a little off-kilter. I think it might in fact come from that little folkloric intrusion, although again, intrusion is the wrong word. The meeting of the two strands of story feels organic and intuitive, and enrichens both of the characters in question, as well as the particular psychological narrative that Narayan pursues. When I reached that bit, I almost skimmed over it, did a double-take, read it again more closely, and then thought, “of course.”

Although her imagery could use sharpening and intensifying, since the language occasionally falls flat, the tale as a whole succeeds in being thoughtful and tender without excessive sentimentality. The last line did raise my hackles a little; last-line clunkers are terribly hard to avoid when you’re going for “tender.”  Regardless, Narayan is successful in conveying an unsettling desperation and psychological fragility under the measured, dispassionate narration, and I was deeply satisfied by the new sense that her telling brings to the archetypes and narratives that it plays with.

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Shweta Narayan
“An Old-Fashioned Unicorn’s Guide to Courtship,” by Sarah Rees Brennan (2008) [E]
Winter is for fairy tales

Winter is for fairy tales

Reviewer: Emera

Actually, every season is for fairy tales, but fairy tales are particularly wonderful when the weather is miserable, I find. Below, quick reviews of two stories that I read within the past few months, both spun from fairy tales. With any luck, I should be able to post a few more later in the week.

Nicole Kornher-Stace’s “Notes Toward a Comparative Mythology” (Fantasy Magazine, read 08.08.09) – Kornher-Stace has an edgy, almost jazzy voice that makes me think she’s probably also an adroit poet – she does have some poetry published with Goblin Fruit, I remember, but I have yet to read it. Make that a note to self.

“Two [babies] with webbing in the gaps between their fingers, toes. Supple and resilient stuff, and when the doctors sliced at it with scalpels, it grew back tough as bootsoles, lettuce-edged, and the very devil to excise.”

I had to read this selkie story twice for it to really click with me, but on the second read, I found that though Kornher-Stace’s wiry, ambitious language occasionally falls a little short of its aim, she’s a skillful, authoritative storyteller, and beautifully conveys the main character’s deepening anguish. The story’s emotional movements are spot-on – I found myself wanting to cheer and do a little dance at the end. I think Kornher-Stace is one to watch; I look forward to investigating her other works, especially her novel Desideria, which sounds right up my and Kakaner’s alleys.

Erzebet Yellowboy‘s “A Spell for Twelve Brothers” (also Fantasy Magazine, read 12.06.09) is a dark, not-so-successful retelling of the Wild Swans fairy tale. Its premise is interesting but unconvincingly executed, particularly since the author’s language is overly mannered and riddled with portentous, inexact metaphors. (“He stopped, he saw the star on her forehead and fell into its golden points.”) I read the first dozen or so paragraphs, then gave up and skimmed the rest.

Go to:
Nicole Kornher-Stace
Erzebet Yellowboy

Deerskin, by Robin McKinley (1993) E

Date read: 8.31.09 (second re-read – first read sometime in 2005)
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Princess Lissla Lissar lives quietly and invisibly in the shadows of her father and mother, who are worshiped by the people, and whose love for each other is all-consuming. When Lissar’s mother mysteriously wastes away, she forces her husband to swear that he will not remarry unless he finds a woman as beautiful as she was. This promise comes back to haunt the kingdom when Lissar, becoming a woman herself, attracts her father’s attention for the first time. Driven from the kingdom by an unendurable ordeal, Lissar escapes with her only friend, her dog Ash, and struggles to survive and reclaim her sense of self.

McKinley is definitely one of those authors whose strongest points can also be their downfalls – in this case, it’s her uncompromising principles and fanatical attention to detail. Obviously, if you’re going to realistically retell a fairy tale as poisonous and wrong as Donkeyskin/Patient Griselda/Allerleirauh, you have to set out to make it pretty darn grim, and, well, much of Deerskin is full of dread, toil, and distress. It’s also beautifully written, compassionate, and defiantly empowering, even as it denies magical cure-alls and 100% happy endings. I know it’s actually the favored comfort reading of a lot of women because of how viscerally empowering it is to grit your teeth alongside Lissar, and watch her claw her way to sanity and independence, and to finally reclaim her ability to love and be loved.

It is easy, however, to be put off by the extent to which Lissar’s travails continue. On this re-read, I did think the book guilty of pre-climactic sag, and I think the writing of the climax itself is pretty flawed, in that its dream-vision aspects are overwrought and poorly communicated. Nonetheless, I think that the dynamics underlying it are pretty clear and compelling both dramatically and psychologically, and I can only imagine how difficult of a scene it must have been to write.

Overall, Deerskin is a powerful handling of an extremely difficult subject, and I can’t imagine anyone else doing it like McKinley does.

On a side note, I was also tickled to realize during this re-read that Deerskin is, sneakily, part of the Damar universe – the setting of The Blue Crown and The Hero and the Sword. McKinley slips in a brief reference to the events of the latter book, specifically, but I hadn’t yet read it when I first read Deerskin. Hmmm, now I really want to re-read The Blue Crown.

Go to:
Robin McKinley

King Rat, by China Miéville (1998) E

Date read: 10.10.08
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

The day after stumbling drunk into his father’s flat, Saul Garamond wakes to find that he is the chief suspect in his father’s killing – which occurred as he slept one room over. Sprung from jail by a raggedly pompous, sinuously sinister figure who calls himself King Rat and claims that Saul’s mother was herself a rat, Saul uncovers the truth of his father’s death, and of his strange heritage in the sewers of London.

So this was an “eh” sort of read. Very Miéville (twisty, dark, and Urban with a capitual u, and an umlaut for good measure), and  good for a first novel, but still obviously a first novel – it’s clear why he didn’t make it big until Perdido Street Station. I found the book intriguing, but not compelling: I was convinced of its mythology and milieu, but not terribly interested, and it simply didn’t have the heft and engrossing sense of reality that the Bas-Lag books do. Add in a general sketchiness as far as character development goes, and the result was that that I imagined Miéville sitting down one day and telling himself that he wanted to write a novel about the Pied Piper legend…. WITH DRUM ‘N’ BASS. And of course a good helping of Socialism. So: too many pet elements without enough connective tissue for them to hang together comfortably. I did like the ambiguity of the King Rat character, though, and found him a memorable figure.

For the record, those interested in other Pied Piper retellings might try looking up Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and the first story, “Paid Piper,” in Tanith Lee’s collection Red as Blood. The former is very polished and amusing, and the latter is very weird. There’s also a not-so-great one with a silly twist ending in Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling’s Snow White, Blood Red (from their retold fairy tale anthology series), whose not-so-greatness is manifest in the fact that I can’t remember the author, although the title was something along the lines of “A Sound, As of Angels.” Hmm.

Go to:

China Miéville
Looking for Jake (2005) K
The City & The City (2009) K

Unveiling our Top 10 YA Books List

The time has come for another list! As you will all soon come to realize, Emera and Kakaner have a dire weaknesses for creating and maintaining lists. We are also both fanatic collectors and readers of YA books, even in our post-teenage years

The list is reproduced below, but its permanent home is on our Lists page here:

The Black Letters Top 10 YA Books

In alphabetical order by author:

  • Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll
  • Ella Enchanted (1997) by Gail Carson Levine
  • The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Justin Norton
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) by Robert C. O’Brien
  • The Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O’Dell
  • Bridge to Terabithia (1977) by Katherine Paterson
  • The Perilous Gard (1971) by Elizabeth Marie Pope
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) by Elizabeth George Speare
  • Maniac Magee (1990) by Jerry Spinelli
  • Dealing with Dragons (1990) by Patricia Wrede

Well, we started with about 20 choices and it was slightly tricky narrowing it down to 10. The genres range from fantasy to urban fiction to historical fiction to animal fiction, which we believe is a pretty healthy smattering of YA genres. If anyone hasn’t read any of these, well, he or she should. All these reads would probably take about an hour, two hours tops, and promise to be most rewarding.

“Urchins, While Swimming,” by Catherynne M. Valente (2006) E

Date read: 8.5.09
Read in: Clarkesworld, Issue 3
Reviewer: Emera

Catherynne Valente‘s short story “Urchins, While Swimming” left me wide-eyed and breathless. It’s a simple, sorrowful, beautiful story, filled with unforgettable imagery and lyrical language. It’s about love between mothers and daughters, and falling in love, and the Russian rusalka myth. (Unless you already know it, you might not want to read it until after you’ve read the story.)

Below, a few of my favorite lines:

“The stars were salt-crystals floating in the window’s mire.”

“Artyom ate the same thing every day: smoked fish, black bread, blueberries folded in a pale green handkerchief.”

“…she did not say we drag the lake with us, even into the city, drag it behind us, a drowning shadow shot with green.”

For this story, Valente won the 2007 StorySouth Million Writers Award for Best Online Short Story; very cool, and deserving. Kakaner also lent me her copy of Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden this weekend, and now I’m even more excited to start it.

Also, since both of us are so partial to short fiction, we’ll probably be inaugurating a secondary review index for short stories alone, which will require a monumental amount of effort, but hopefully be rewarding.

Go to:
Catherynne M. Valente

Beauty, by Robin McKinley (1978) E

Date Read: 5.27.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

McKinley’s first published novel is actually one of the last of hers that I read, when in high school I belatedly rediscovered her books and went on a rampage through nearly all of her work – when much younger, I had tried and failed to get through The Outcasts of Sherwood, and hadn’t gone back since. (Actually, I’m currently still not up-to-date on her newest two novels, Dragonhaven and Chalice.) From what I’ve seen, Beauty might also be the most widely beloved of her work, in competition largely with the Damar books (The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown).

I remember that my working backwards to Beauty actually had an adverse effect on my opinion of it at first read – her later books tend towards much weightier plotlines and intricate, metaphorical language, so that I found Beauty simplistic by comparison. On re-reading it, I found that simplicity to be a great part of its charm. McKinley’s later books can perhaps be overburdened by axe-grinding (Deerskin), lengthy protagonist hand-wringing (Sunshine, which I passionately love nonetheless), and other excesses. (On reading Rose Daughter, McKinley’s second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, one of my roommates frankly remarked that McKinley “could use an editor.”)

By contrast, Beauty is fresh and openhearted, and although the prose may not be as elegant as that in McKinley’s mature works, her descriptions are exuberant and generously enchanting. Beauty, whose nickname here is ironic, is immediately recognizable as the archetype of McKinley’s heroines: likably bookish, plain, and straight-spoken, these anti-damsels may now litter the YA fantasy landscape, but McKinley’s are some of the first and definitely still some of the best. Beauty’s voice is funny and thoughtful, and being an inveterate lover of books, horses, and gardening myself, it’s pretty hard not to identify with her.

Continue reading Beauty, by Robin McKinley (1978) E